LA HISTORIA (History)
Spanish civil engineer Don Gavino Gutiérrez went looking for guavas in the early 1880s, and instead found what became Ybor City. With dashed hopes of creating a new home base for his tropical fruit preserving company, the lack of guavas made the trip a disappointment at first.
He reported this to two of his Cuban exile pals, Don Vicente Martinez Ybor and Don Ignacio Haya, both prominent men in the cigar world who were living in Key West.
They took interest in this undeveloped land north of Tampa because it had a similar climate and proximity to Cuba where they bought their labour and tobacco for making cigars, and to Key West where they were currently operating.
LA CAPITAL MUNDIAL DEL CIGARRO (Cigar Capital of the World)
Don Ybor was known to be well-liked by his workers. He was credited for the practice of creating casita homes for his workers that they could buy at cost to insure retention, rather than cramming them into communal squat houses.
He also facilitated paved streets and sidewalks, and medical care at no extra cost to the worker, and invested into the mutual aid societies and social clubs that were formed in Ybor City.
Don Ybor’s new Ybor City cigar factory was the largest brick structure in Florida at the time. He had previously founded the “Prince of Wales” brand of cigars in Cuba, but was forced to flee Spanish-ruled Cuba as a supporter of Cuban independence. Ybor City was a fresh start full of endless opportunities.
He moved his cigar factories to Key West and NYC to the new Ybor City in 1885. Other companies like Garcial & Company, Armo, Lopez & Brothers, Arguilles, and Trujillo & Benemelis quickly moved into Ybor City.
Soon there were 200 different factories with over 12,000 tabaqueros employed, producing 700 million cigars annually. By 1900, Ybor City was hailed as the Cigar Capital of the World.
There were 36 known shapes and sizes of cigars, which led to a need for artfully branded cigar labels. Enter the German immigrant lithographers, and the second new art form with roots in Ybor City.
LA CULTURA (The Culture)
Ybor City is unique in so many ways, beginning with its concentration of ethnic diversity, and being a successful American manufacturing city created and operated almost entirely by immigrants.
Immigrants from Cuba, Spain, Italy, and Sicily were the first to arrive and work in the factories. Romanians, Jews, Chinese, and Germans were among the others to follow. Within the first year, this area’s population grew from under 700 to over 6,000.
One of the most interesting things about Ybor City history is the culture of its cigar factory workforce, in addition its fusion of tradition, culture, food, and life in general.
The essence of it all was strongly influenced by union culture, a desire for workers’ rights, and community support. Cuban factory workers were often pro-union, left-leaning, anti-corporation, and, like Don Ybor, supporters of Cuban independence. This was a time long before the days of minimum wage or having any limits on age requirements or hours required in a work day or week.
To break the monotony of long hours, factory workers pooled their money together to hire lectors that would read aloud to them while they worked. Many of the books and plays that were read, like the notorious Anna in the Tropics, mirrored their dreams of a free Cuba. Photo below by ArtSWFL.com:
Ybor City’s blended immigrant culture also relied on socialist values in the creation of mutual aid societies and social clubs like El Centro Espanol, Centro Asturiano, Unione Italiana, Circulo Cubano, La Union Marti-Maceo, and the Deutsch-Amerikan club for medical and civil/social needs. These were the earliest known institutions of cooperative social medicine in the USA.
One thing I learned that blew my mind was that even though racism is/was not an issue among Cuban workers or between immigrant groups with varying skin tones, they still fell victim to America’s ugly Jim Crow laws of the time.
Cubans with darker skin typically had to become members and pay dues to La Union Marti-Maceo and were not allowed to mingle with Cubans with lighter skin who joined Circulo Cubano, or with other “whites” or immigrants with lighter skin tones on American soil. This is why there were so many different social clubs for the same ethnicities or people of the same origin.
Many of these club buildings still stand with original signs, though some have been repurposed into utility companies or simply remain empty as historic landmarkers, like El Centro Espanol below.
CUBA LIBRE! (Free Cuba!)
Being so close to Cuba, and having a spreading reputation for employing a majority of Cuban and pro-Cuba workers, Ybor City became a hub for Cuban immigrants, exiles, and all things Cuban politics. One Cuban revolutionist named José Martí visited Ybor City to raise morale and gain support before joining the Cuban War for Independence.
El Parque Amigos de Jose Marti is a small park created to honour of Martí, the poet, journalist, and “Apostle of Cuban Independence” who lost his life during the war for Cuban liberation from Spain in 1895. It is officially owned by the people of Cuba, and was the only Cuban-owned land in the USA until 2015. You can visit it for free at the intersection of 8th and 13th Avenues.
Ybor City cigar factories and workers are linked so tightly to Cuba and its fight for independence that there were rumours circulating like wildfire that secret messages were passed on inside cigar wrappers. The rumours were never thoroughly dispelled.
Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders famously rode through Ybor City, stationing soldiers there after war unfolded between the USA and Spain in 1898. The origin of the Cuba Libre cocktail is credited to this time when soldiers frequented Cuban watering holes.
LA DISMINUCIÓN (The Decline)
While Ybor peaked in the 1920s and 1930s, it suffered terribly in the Great Depression. Not just due to the failing economy but with the invention of various mechanical and automated methods of creating cigars. The artfully-crafted fancy cigar became impractical, and the cheap, quickly-spun stogie was in.
A huge percentage of skilled Cuban/Spanish rollers left Ybor City in the 1930s and early 1940s for better jobs, and only a few small shops had the luxury of keeping the doors open. After WWII, there was a short revival for the hand-rolled Cuban cigar, but most factories were closed by the 1950s, even as more modern buildings sprung up around them.
The final blow came in 1962 between Cuban leader Fidel Castro and the US Government, leading to an embargo on anything shipped in from Cuba. With their supply of materials cut off, the factories had no choice but to close.
A few years later, various urban renewal projects destroyed a number of buildings Ybor City, leading to an uprising for preservation and the creation of a new tourism economy.
VISITA EL PASADO (Visit the Past)
Ybor City is one of just three National Historic Landmark Districts in Florida. Many of the old cigar factories still stand and several now have hand-rolled cigar shops on the ground level where you can watch the torcedores while they work.
Two of the oldest cigar magnate families, Arturo Fuente and J.C. Newman, have buildings that are still standing. Fuente’s Tampa Sweethearts Cigars is in a bright yellow former worker house, and the J.C. Newman Cigar Co. has been renovated.
The J.C. Newman Company will feature a museum and hand-rolling gallery in its factory, and will be showcasing the new Americano, a cigar made entirely with U.S.-grown materials, from the filler to the label.
Several other factories have survived, mostly two, three, or four-story brick buildings. The old red-brick Ybor Factory Complex on 14th Street almost spans the entire block, and the E. Regensberg & Sons on 16th Street is the only large factory in Ybor City that still mass produces cigars.
You can download a free GPS walking tour guide and explore on your own, or you can book a cigar history walking tour.
The Ybor City Museum (below) hosts a walking tour that takes you inside a former cigar maker’s house, the old Don Vicente Inn, old worker homes, a garden, and to see a cigar that measures almost 200 feet long, holding the Guinness World Record title for longest in the world.
Historic Ybor City has the distinction of being the only National Historic Landmark District in western Florida with over 950 historic buildings, making it the largest collection of Cuban-Spanish architecture and the largest collection of cigar factory buildings in the world.
Most of the district lies between 6th and 10th Avenues, bordered by 13th and 22nd Streets. Check out this super cool interactive photography map of historic Ybor generated by the Burgert Brothers.
Wander the cobblestoned main thoroughfare of La Septima (7th Avenue) to see most of the attractions like existing cigar shops, restaurants, and bars. You will know La Septima by the large white tiles inlaid with black ones leading down the avenue.
La Septima was also named one of America’s Greatest Streets. In addition to the old brick exteriors, one feature of Ybor City that I love is the wrought-iron balconies and vintage lamps.
UNA CIUDAD MODERNA (A Modern City)
With such an impressive amount of history in these cluster of city blocks, it should not be a surprise that Ybor City has become a hub of tourism.
Aside from strolling La Septima, Centro Ybor is one of the main attractions. It is both an outdoor-mall type structure and a stop on the free TECO street trolley.
Check out places like Asiatic Street Food & Noodle Bar, Centro Cantina, Samurai Blue, Tampa Bay Brewing Company, Hyppo, The Brass Tap, Ybor City Wine Bar, a film cinema, and some apparel/home goods stores in Centro Ybor.
We had a great time sampling brews and snacking on beer cheese dip at the Tampa Bay Brewing Company, which has been featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.
CRIATURAS DE LA NOCHE (Creatures of the Night)
Speaking of social clubs, two of our favourite places in Ybor City are the Spookeasy and The Castle.
Spookeasy Lounge is a Kava and Kratom café with traditional coffeeshop offerings. It is located upstairs behind a hidden bookshelf entrance in the Boneyard Dive Bar.
Being a long way from home, we were amused to learn that our fellow metalhead bartender is originally from a small town close to where we live. He let us sample different blends and we talked music for a bit, complete with a photoshoot on the gothic furniture.
Update: I am sad to learn that the Spookeasy has recently closed.
The Castle is a long-time staple nightlife for goth nights, alternative lifestyles, and curious observers. You can visit the website for more details.
Ybor City is known for its nightlife. The city has taken great strides to keep a bad rep at bay, and though we did not venture off La Septima after dark, we did not see any shifty business. Most of Ybor’s patronage after hours are actually tourists, so beware of other tourists, if anything.
La Policia are not often seen in the daytime, save for an awkward raid drill we witnessed while chilling in Centennial Park with friends. I thought they were coming after me for having an open container in my purse, but learned otherwise after watching officers run to and fro, brandishing large guns and riot shields. Turns out they were getting ready for the annual Rough Riders parade later.
We had a rad time at an indoor/outdoor club that I can not recall the name of, but was a nice variance from the glitzy, overwhelmingly splashy, multi-level nightclubs like Prana and Tangra that made me dizzy. Whew.
HORA DE COMER (Time to Eat)
I dare you to find an Ybor City travel guide that does not command you to visit the Columbia Restaurant, and there are endless reasons for that.
Columbia Restaurant is Florida’s oldest restaurant, family-owned and operated since 1905, and is also the largest Spanish restaurant in the world. It has won awards from around the globe and features live flamenco dancing as dinner entertainment.
The extensive menu features the famous Columbia 1905 Salad that has a similar taste profile as a Cuban sandwich minus the bread.
We also shared the Cuban Sampler plate and, of course, a Cuban sandwich.
La Segunda Bakery is usually listed around third place on most Ybor City restaurant guides, following Carmine’s, which we were not impressed with at all. We loved Segunda as much as Columbia.
The bakery is small, unassuming, and usually packed with a line of people extending down the block. We were wise enough to arrive as soon as they opened, barring any risk of them running out of all the things we wanted to try.
Two other ladies in line had names that sounded just like ours, and the process of the bakers calling out our orders was hilarious. I think we ended up with what we actually paid for. I would not have cared either way because it was all so delicious.
We selected whatever struck our fancy, unpacked it out on the sidewalk, and feasted under a giant tree for shade.
Flan Factory was a place we kind of stumbled on serendipitously.
The server seemed to think we were joking when we told him we planned to try every single flavour of homemade flan on the menu. We also ordered timba, a dish of seared blocks of queso blanca with guava dip, plus a Cuban bistec.
We had to take half of our score home with us, but we followed through.
A very dear friend and Ybor City resident invited us to meet for lunch at La Creperia Café, and we enjoyed a variety of these little delicacies.
Cigar City Brewing was voted the best and most famous of Tampa Bay’s two dozen craft breweries, and we made sure to stop in and sample a few of their brews to escape the heat.
TODO LO DEMAS (Everything else)
Dysfunctional Grace is an interesting oddities, taxidermy, and antiques store with very unpredictable hours. Call to make sure someone is actually there before you go. Make sure they will still be there in the time it takes you to arrive. Seriously, they do not gaf.
Last, and absolutely not least, visit the lovely Centennial Park. Try to go on a Saturday during the Saturday Market to support local artists and crafters.
We picked up some gorgeous new jewelry to commemorate our time in Ybor City.
Two women and a young girl were making Arepas, corn pancakes, on the griddle and serving them with various toppings. I was mesmerized watching them work in tandem, turning the Arepas out unbelievably fast.
Unfortunately they did not have a sign for their business and the Saturday Market website does not have an Arepas vendor listed. If you see them, do not pass them up.
Watch out for all the wild chickens! Just like in Key West, these birds fall under environmental and historic protections so abducting, attacking, chasing, or otherwise bothering them is strictly prohibited.
The place I am most interested in checking out next time we visit is the Hotel Haya, Ybor City’s newest Instagram destination that is named after Don Haya, in the old Hayas building.
Getting around Ybor City is so easy and free, just hop on the free TECO streetcar.
After hours and hours and hours of narrowing it down, I picked out a few jams by Cuban artists for ya; Cimafunk’s NPR: Tiny Desk Concert, the wildly entertaining Toques del Rio with their song “Los Chimes,” sultry Cuban poet queen Telmary’s risque song and video for “Libre,” and then Santeria Goddess Dayme Arocena’s NPR: Tiny Desk concert. Enjoy!
In the area for a while? Follow me to Tampa Heights, Hyde Park, and Downtown Tampa’s Riverfront.
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